Key messages 

  • Participatory mapping enables laypeople to be part of the map-making process, which has historically been the preserve of experts. 
  • Lack of education is not necessarily a barrier to participation. When they know the landscape well, non-literate participants can provide information that is rich, detailed, and valuable for decision making. 
  • Challenges include the cost and accessibility of equipment and data, and hostile legal environments that obstruct restitution of common resources. 

Historically, mapping has been predominantly a tool of colonial and state power, representing reality primarily in ways useful to administrators and extractive projects. However, laypeople have long made their own maps and used them in resistance to forces that ignored claims to customary territory. 

The features that distinguish this approach from the standard citizen science model are, first, that the ends to which data collection is directed are determined by or co-created with the community of users; and second, that rather than targeting people with high levels of digital literacy, the approach includes collaborators regardless of literacy.

The work took place in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo region, where there is a long history of maps being used as tools of state power, and a more recent history of participatory mapping by indigenous people and their allies. The authors’ aim was to explore the potential of a digital mapping process that responded to indigenous people’s priorities, and in which locals could take a leading role regardless of their levels of literacy.